Digital Transformation Data & Privacy

Google’s children’s data privacy settlement explained

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By Kendra Clark | Senior Reporter

December 14, 2021 | 7 min read

Following allegations that Google collected children’s personal information via its educational products and allowed app developers to gather children’s data without consent, the tech giant has agreed to work with the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office on a new project to promote children’s online safety, education and privacy. Here’s what you need to know.

Mother and child looking at smartphone together

Following allegations that Google collected kids' data illegally, the company commits dollars to safety and privacy education

Google yesterday reached a settlement with the state of New Mexico, following accusations that the tech titan was violating children’s privacy rights. As part of the settlement, Google has agreed to help start a new children’s education and online safety project.

The settlement comes more than three years after New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas sued a handful of tech companies for alleged violations. Balderas filed two federal suits against Google in particular. One alleges that AdMob, Google’s mobile ad platform, allowed game developer Tiny Lab Productions to gather personal information on children. The other says Google was collecting data on children through its Chromebooks and G-Suite for Education products. The Attorney General’s office argued that these actions violated the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) as well as state consumer protection laws.

The smattering of lawsuits filed by the state against companies including Google and Twitter came mere months after a report by the International Computer Science Institute at the University of California, Berkeley found that some 57% of Android apps may have violated COPPA.

"Children’s privacy is an area of increasingly urgent concern for US lawmakers," Julie Rubash, chief privacy counsel at privacy software firm Sourcepoint tells The Drum. "New Mexico AG Balderas has been aggressively focusing on children’s privacy over the last couple of years, having also filed complaints against Rovio Entertainment, developer of the Angry Birds game, in addition to Tiny Labs and several associated ad networks...Balderas also joined 43 other states' Attorney General [Offices] in a letter this past May urging Facebook to abandon its plans to create a version of Instagram for Children."

'We should do everything we can to protect the privacy of children'

In the aftermath of the debacle, Google has agreed to a settlement with the Attorney General’s Office. The core component of the settlement will be the establishment and funding of the new Google New Mexico Kids Initiative, which will “fund efforts to promote education, privacy and safety for New Mexico children,” per a statement released yesterday. Google has agreed to work hand-in-hand with Balderas in the next few weeks to determine fund recipients. A reported $3.8m has been set aside for the initiative.

“There are incredible risks lurking online and we should do everything we can to protect the privacy of children,” said Attorney General Hector Balderas in a statement. “I’m pleased that we demanded Google put the safety of our school children first and that we’re able to partner with Google in our shared commitment to innovation and education, putting these funds where they can do the most good.”

Addressing the allegations raised in both suits filed by Balderas, Google has also agreed to make updates to both its Workspace for Education product suite as well as its app marketplace, the Google Play Store.

For one, Google says it will equip school administrators with “tools to protect minor students from improper collection of their personal data,” according to a statement shared with The Drum. These include access settings that can be restricted based on a user’s age. As an additional perk, Google has promised that, as part of its Google for Education Pilot Program, New Mexico schools will gain early access to new products.

'A privacy paradox'

As far as the Google Play Store is concerned, Google says it will crack down on a common shady practice: app developers mislabeling children-marketed apps in an attempt to make money from targeted advertising.

The company will also introduce a handful of changes to marketplace, including a requirement that apps introduce age screening tools to mitigate the collection of personal data belonging to children under 13 and improve parental visibility into apps’ data collection practices. The move comes less than a year after Google Play rolled out a new data safety disclosure requirement — a developer-created disclosure for a given app's data collection, sharing and security practices.

However, some point out that this approach entails an inherent contradiction. “The crux of the problem is a privacy paradox of sorts. To exclude an individual or a device from targeting, you need to have additional data on them that is more precise, and that ultimately follows them around to prevent privacy violations,” says Vlad Stesin, co-founder and chief product officer at data connectivity platform Optable. “Although there are existing traditional mechanisms for this, they need to be modernized in the wake of the gradual erosion of third-party cookies and mobile identifiers."

Google did not offer further clarification outside of a statement by Cynthia Pantazis, the company's director of government affairs and public policy, who said: "We are pleased to support programs and initiatives in New Mexico that promote kids’ education, privacy and safety online. We look forward to working with the AG’s Office to identify partners to help execute this shared goal.”

Other experts view the settlement as mostly a gesture on Google’s part. Charlie Silver, chief executive officer at Permission.io, a platform that allows users to earn cryptocurrency for their own data, is one such thinker. “Google has become one of the most profitable companies in history because it has created products to collect personal data in every imaginable way. Slowly, through regulation and consumer awareness, this model of data exploitation is being exposed. This New Mexico case reflects the growing activism of the governments globally to take action,” he says. But Silver is skeptical that such cases indicate a large-scale change in values. “Google will make settlements with governments on a case-by-case basis and avoid making changes to their model of data exploitation globally. They will take small punches and avoid making overall changes.”

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